Afanasy Fet

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Afanasy Fet (1820-1892)

Russian poet (b. 23 November/5 December 1820 at the estate of Novosyolki in Oryol Province; d. 21 November/3 December 1892 in Moscow), born Afanasy Afanasyevich Shenshin (Афанасий Афанасьевич Шеншин), he was registered in 1835 as Afanasy Fet (Афанасий Фет), but in 1873 an imperial decree authorized him to assume the name of Shenshin, although he continued to use the name Fet in literature.


The poet's mother, a German woman called Charlotte Foeth (d. 1844), eloped from her husband Johann Foeth with the wealthy landowner Afanasy Neofitovich Shenshin (1770–1854), who had come to Darmstadt in early 1820 for medical treatment. Shenshin took her to his ancestral estate in the province of Oryol, where later that year she gave birth to a boy who was christened Afanasy in honour of the squire and registered in the parish records as his legitimate son. It is not clear, though, whether the poet's father was Shenshin or Johann Foeth. In 1822, Shenshin married Charlotte, and Afanasy grew up on the estate of Novosyolki convinced that he was the squire's eldest son and heir. In 1835, however, the Holy Consistory at Oryol declared that since Afanasy had been born illegitimately he could not call himself a member of the illustrious Shenshin family, and that henceforth he was to be registered as "Afanasy Fet, subject of the Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt". This was a traumatic experience for the young man, who thereby lost all rights to own land in Russia, could not even call himself Russian, and had to bear the stigma of being an illegitimate child. Fet's later decision to pursue a military career was motivated by the fact that army officers of a certain rank were awarded hereditary titles of nobility, and his efforts over many years to clear himself of the shame of his origins were finally rewarded in 1873, when Tsar Alexander II allowed him to assume the name of A. N. Shenshin and was reinstated in his rights as the latter's heir. Although the name Fet was associated with all the humiliations of his life and he insisted from then on that everyone should address him as Shenshin, he continued signing his verses and other writings as Afanasy Fet: it was as such that he had long since become a household name for the Russian reading public.

Between 1834 and 1837 Fet studied at a boarding-school in the small Estonian town of Võru, after which he enrolled in the Philology Department at Moscow University in 1838. Since he dedicated more time to poetry-writing than to his academic courses, he did not graduate until 1844. In 1842 and 1843 he had started contributing verses to the journals Notes of the Fatherland and Moskvitianin, and the eminent critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) singled out some of his poems for praise, but in 1845 he took the unexpected decision of enlisting as an NCO in a cavalry regiment, rather than following a career in the civil service. This was because being awarded the title of hereditary nobility was generally quicker for non-gentlemen in the army than in the civil service, where a much higher rank needed to be reached first. Fet spent several years with his regiment in small provincial towns and villages in Kherson province (Ukraine) — years which were marred by financial hardship (as after his mother's death in 1844 A. N. Shenshin stopped sending him any money) and by a government decree which raised the rank required to qualify for hereditary nobility further still. In 1853, he managed to obtain a transfer to a Guards regiment whose headquarters was near Saint Petersburg, thereby allowing him to spend time in the capital and come into contact with the editors of the Contemporary, which regularly published his verses from 1854 onwards. He also became friends with Ivan Turgenev, together with whom he visited Pauline Viardot's château at Courtavenel in the autumn of 1856. Fet submitted many of his poems for Turgenev's perusal before they were published, and, although the latter was sometimes overly critical and sarcastic towards his friend, he did help to bring out a new volume of Fet's poetry in 1856. After a new decree was issued that year according to which it was necessary to attain the rank of colonel in order to obtain hereditary membership of the nobility, Fet realised that there was no point in continuing with a military career and he resigned from the army in 1858 with the rank of lieutenant.

In 1857, Fet married Mariya Petrovna Botkina (1828–1894), the daughter of a wealthy Moscow tea merchant and sister of the notable literary and music critic Vasily Botkin (1810–1869). It was a marriage of convenience more than anything else and they had no children. (The poet's first love, Mariya Lazich, had died in mysterious circumstances in 1850, and it was rumoured that she had committed suicide.) Towards the end of the 1850s Fet came under attack from the radical critics for the 'vagueness' of his poetry, his defence of 'pure art' abstracted from all social concerns, and his increasingly conservative views. He saw that he could not make a living as a writer and decided to take up agriculture as a profession: in 1860, he acquired lands in the district of Mtsensk, near his birthplace, and built himself a manor house which he called Stepanovka. Although in 1863 a new anthology of his verses came out in two volumes Fet wrote very little poetry during the 1860s and 70s and was hardly mentioned in the Russian press except as a butt of satire for the radical journals which caricatured him as a tight-fisted landowner who spent his leisure hours in cloud cuckoo land writing abstruse verses.

Following a quarrel with Turgenev in 1874, Fet's closest friend now became Lev Tolstoy, who like him was living in rural seclusion in nearby Yasnaya Polyana. With Tolstoy he shared a fascination with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and Fet became the latter's most devoted acolyte, eventually publishing his Russian translation of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (Мир как воля и представление: 2nd ed. Saint Petersburg, 1888). The poet subscribed enthusiastically to Schopenhauer's analysis of art as something completely divorced from the selfish desires of the will, as well as to his distinction between unconscious artistic inspiration and the lower realm of reason. In his poetry however, which revolves around the fleeting impressions of nature and love, Fet did not follow the German philosopher's pessimism.

Thanks to his tenacity as a landowner Fet amassed a considerable fortune, and he decided to sell off Stepanovka in 1877 and buy a new estate called Vorobyevka in Kursk province. One of his neighbours and friends there was Nikolay Tchaikovsky, the composer's older brother. In 1881, Fet also bought a house in Moscow, where from then on he would spend the winter months. By the end of the 1870s his friendship with Tolstoy had cooled markedly, but he managed to patch up earlier quarrels with Turgenev and Yakov Polonsky. In the 1880s Fet's main literary adviser became the philosopher and critic Nikolay Strakhov (1828–1895) and he began to publish in the major journals again, as well as bringing out regular anthologies of his poetry. The latter now included many translations: both parts of Goethe's Faust (1889), and the complete works of Horace, Juvenal, Catullus, Tibullus, Ovid, Propertius, Martial, and Plautus. He also published three volumes of memoirs, the last one appearing posthumously in 1893.

Despite having received the satisfaction, in 1873, of being able to use the name Shenshin again, Fet continued to be obsessed with wiping out the stains of his past, and this led him to petition in 1888 for an appointment as chamberlain to the imperial court in Moscow. He also prided himself on his friendship with Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, who was in his turn flattered to have such a famous poet as his 'teacher'.

Tchaikovsky and Fet

Tchaikovsky had a particular fondness for the poetry of Fet, which is reflected not just in the fascinating letters he exchanged with Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich in 1888 (quoted in full below), observing how his finest poetry could only properly be compared to music and how Fet often reminded him of Beethoven, but also in the fact that the very first song which Tchaikovsky composed — while he was still at the School of Jurisprudence — was a setting of verses by this poet: My Genius, My Angel, My Friend (late 1850s). In contrast to many Russian readers nowadays, Tchaikovsky even rated Fet higher than that other great lyric poet of the nineteenth century: Fyodor Tyutchev.

The published score of The Seasons (1875–76) includes some verses from Fet's 1857 poem Yet Another May Night (Ещё майская ночь) as an epigraph for No. 5 in this cycle, which is entitled White Nights: May. This was a poem which was much admired by Turgenev and Tolstoy, who, referring to two of its verses: "And after the nightingale's song / Alarm and love resound in the air" (И в воздухе за песнью соловьиной / Разносится тревога и любовь), once wrote to a mutual friend: "Delightful! Now where does our jovial fat officer get this incomprehensible lyrical boldness from — this boldness which is a characteristic of great poets?" [1]

During his stay in Italy in the early months of 1878 Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, asking her if she could send him suitable poems by Aleksey Tolstoy, Fet, Mey, and Tyutchev, so that he might choose some to set to music [2]. His benefactress duly complied with this request, but it seems that Tchaikovsky did not select anything by Fet on that occasion. The next time that he set a poem by Fet to music was not until the summer of 1886 in Maydanovo, when he composed the song I'll Tell You Nothing — No. 2 of the Twelve Romances, Op. 60.

As mentioned above, the year 1888 saw a remarkable exchange of letters with Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich about Russian prosody and versification in which Tchaikovsky likened Fet's poetry to music and said that it was this which made it so difficult to 'understand' for readers who expected the words in a poem to make sense literally (see letter 3651 below). The Grand Duke cited these striking observations by Tchaikovsky in a letter he wrote soon afterwards to Fet, with whom he was also on very friendly terms. The poet replied to his imperial patron as follows: "Tchaikovsky has, as it were, discerned the artistic tendency to which I have always been drawn, and with regard to which the late Turgenev often said that he was expecting me to write a poem one day in which the final couplet would have to be conveyed by a silent stirring of one's lips. Tchaikovsky has hit the nail right on the head, for it is true that I have always felt myself drawn from the definite sphere of words into the indefinite sphere of music — a realm into which I would travel as far as my strength would let me" [3].

Tchaikovsky was certainly right in giving such prominence to Fet in this discussion of Russian versification with the [[Konstantin Konstantinovich|Grand Duke], for later commentators have pointed out the innovative character of much of Fet's poetry, especially in terms of the rhythms he experimented with. Many of his poems also contain repetitions and song-like refrains, which explains why composers of romances often turned to them: Aleksandr Varlamov (1801–1848), for example, created a popular setting of the 1842 poem Do Not Leave Me (Не отходи от меня), which Tchaikovsky would himself set to music in 1875. At the same time, though, Tchaikovsky was also aware of the limitations of Fet's muse — the "incompleteness and imbalance" he refers to in letter 3651 below — just as even those critics who were well-disposed towards the poet, such as his brother-in-law Vasily Botkin, took him to task in the 1850s for the narrowness of his interests and his lack of depth. This did not, however, deter Tchaikovsky from unreservedly declaring that Fet was a "genius" and an "exceptional phenomenon". The 1857 poem On a Haystack during a Southern Night (На стоге сена ночью южной), with its evocation of a cosmic feeling of Nature, awakened his particular admiration and he intended to use it as the basis for a musical piece — a project that was unfortunately not realised.

On 14/26 August 1891, the composer arrived at Ukolovo in the province of Kursk, to spend four days with his older brother Nikolay. On the last day of this stay the two brothers paid a visit to Nikolay's neighbour Fet on the nearby estate of Vorobyevka. It was on this occasion that Tchaikovsky met the poet for the first time, and he recorded his very positive impressions in some letters which are also quoted below. To mark this visit (which took place on 18/30 August), Fet presented his guest with a poem entitled To Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Петру Ильичу Чайковскому), in which, alluding ironically to the composer's triumphant tour to the United States earlier that year, he seems to have recalled Tchaikovsky's critical remarks about the monotony of Russian verse in those letters to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich in 1888! Still, Fet also paid sincere tribute to the younger man's talent:

Тому не лестны наши оды
Наш стих родной
Кому гремели антиподы
Такой хвалой
Но, потрясённый весь струнами
Ево цевниц
Восторг не может и меж нами
Терпеть границ
Так пусть надолго музы наши
Хранят певца
И он кипит, как пена в чаше
И в нас сердца!

Our odes mean nothing
Nor does our native verse
To him on whom the antipodes
Have heaped such praise
But, staggered wholly by the reeds
Of his pipe
Enthusiasm even in our country
Knows no bounds
So may our muses for a long time
Preserve this singer
And may his song gush up, like froth
In a cup and like our hearts!" [4]

Although this poem had probably been prepared beforehand, in anticipation of the composer's visit, Fet was clearly impressed favourably by his guest, as we may see from a letter he wrote to the Grand Duke a few days later: "Some three days ago the brother of our neighbour Nikolay Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich, who had come to stay with his brother for two [sic] days, came here to have dinner with us. I liked him, as he has a completely artistic nature. I seated him right next to me at the table and am positively convinced that Your Highness's ears must have been burning [over there in Saint Petersburg], given that we spoke of you so assiduously. When Marya Petrovna found out that he loves flowers passionately, she placed two bouquets with flowers from our now fading garden in front of him on the table, whilst I read out to him a poem that I then presented him with — he seems to have been very satisfied with it" [5].

In the late summer of 1893, a year after Fet's death, Tchaikovsky visited Vorobyevka for a second time, spoke to the poet's widow, and was again enchanted by the estate's luxuriant garden and orchards.

Tchaikovsky's Settings of Works by Fet

  • First untitled poem (1842) from the cycle To Ophelia (К Офелии, 1842–47) — set to music by Tchaikovsky in the late 1850s as My Genius, My Angel, My Friend (Мой гений, мой ангел, мой друг).
  • Do Not Leave Me (1842), first untitled poem from the cycle Melodies (Мелодии) — set to music by Tchaikovsky in 1875 as Do Not Leave Me (Не отходи от меня) — No. 3 of the Six Romances and Songs, Op. 27.
  • To a Songstress (1857) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Take My Heart Away (Уноси моё сердце) — No. 1 of the Two Songs (1873).
  • Beethoven's Appeal to his Beloved (1857) — set to music by Tchaikovsky in 1872 as Accept Just Once (Пойми хоть раз) — No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 16.
  • Romance (1885) — set to music by Tchaikovsky in 1886 as I'll Tell You Nothing (Я тебе ничего не скажу) — No. 2 of the Twelve Romances, Op. 60.

There was also one further, unrealised, setting:

  • On a Haystack during a Southern Night (На стоге сена ночью южной), untitled poem (1857) from the cycle Evenings and Nights (Вечера и ночи) — in Letter 3675 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 21 September/3 October 1888, Tchaikovsky said that he was "determined to illustrate [this poem] musically at some point".

General Reflections on Fet

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Letter 755 to Nadezhda von Meck, 9/21 February 1878, from Florence, in which Tchaikovsky first talks about his love for Russia, his recent reading of Schopenhauer, and then emphasizes that in his music he had frequently sought to express the agony and bliss of love:

I do not agree with you at all that music is unable to convey the all-embracing qualities of the feeling of love. On the contrary, in fact, for I think that music alone can do this. You say that words are necessary for that. O no! that is precisely where words are not required at all, and there where they are powerless a more eloquent language strides in fully armed — namely, music. After all, the verse diction to which poets resort in order to express love is in itself already a usurpation of a sphere which belongs to music completely.

Words which are put into the form of verses have thereby already ceased to be mere words: they have become 'musicalized'. The best proof of the fact that verses which seek to express love are more musical than verbal in nature, can be seen in how very often such verses (I should like to point you to Fet, whom I like very much), if they are read attentively as words rather than as music, make almost no sense whatsoever. And yet not only do they have a meaning, but the idea which is contained in them is profound — however, it is not a literary idea, but a purely musical one.

  • Letter 3578 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 30 May/11 June 1888, in which Tchaikovsky discusses the trochaic pentameter used by the Grand Duke in a poem and points out in one verse a caesura which he felt was unjustified, although he adds that he might be wrong:

At the end of it all, of course, I am not right, since such an astonishing master of verse as Fet justifies the concealment of the caesura in positions where according to the rules of music no such concealment is possible. From this it evidently follows that I look upon verses as a musician and see a violation of the rules of rhythm where from the point of view of versification there is none at all, or if such a violation does occur, then it is excusable

I wish we could more often see such deviations from the standard prosodic patterns as you have pleased to indicate in Fet's poetry. After all, the Russian language, as Turgenev rightly observed in one of his poems in prose, is something infinitely rich, strong, and great, and I am not at all convinced that only the tonic system of verse is intrinsic to it

[... Tchaikovsky then quotes some syllabic verses by Kantemir and refers to the metre of ancient Russian songs and byliny, as well as that of The Lay of Igor's Campaign (Слово о полку Игореве), expressing his hope that one day Russian poets would start using these metres, too...]

Not only do I sympathize with everything that you say about Fet, but in fact I go even further than you and consider him unreservedly to be a poet of genius, although in this genius of his there is a certain incompleteness and imbalance, as a result of which we are faced with the strange phenomenon that Fet sometimes wrote quite poor, nay, incomprehensibly awful things (the majority of these, though, has not been included in the complete works editions) and alongside these such pieces which make one's hair stand on end. Fet is a quite exceptional phenomenon; it is simply impossible to compare him with other first-rate poets (foreign or Russian), to find affinities between him and Pushkin, or Lermontov, or Aleksey Tolstoy, or Tyutchev (who is also a very eminent poet). Rather, one might say that Fet, in his best moments, goes beyond the limits imposed by poetry and strides boldly into our province.

That is why Fet often reminds me of Beethoven, but never of Pushkin, Goethe or Byron or Musset. Like Beethoven, he is endowed with the power to touch such chords of our soul as are otherwise unattainable for those poets who, no matter how good they may be, are confined to the limits of speech. He isn't just a poet, but, rather, a poet-musician, who even seems, as it were, to avoid such subjects which are most readily expressed by means of words. That is why people often do not understand him, and there are even such gentlemen who laugh at him, asserting that a poem like Take My Heart Away into the Ringing Distance (Уноси моё сердце в звенящую даль) etc. is utter nonsense. For a narrow-minded person, especially one who is unmusical, that may indeed be nonsense, but after all it is not in vain that Fet, in spite of his genius (which for me is unquestionable), is not at all popular, whereas Nekrasov, with his muse that crawls along the ground, is the idol of the overwhelming majority of the reading public" [6].

It was highly interesting for me to read in Your Highness's letter Fet's comments on my dilettantish ravings about Russian versification. In spite of his sly insinuation about musicians, who, as he puts it, are 'indifferent and even hostile towards poetry', I felt a tremendous pleasure in reading Fet's remarks. Firstly, it is touching to see Fet's attitude to Tyutchev, who, though he really does deserve immortality, might easily not have been appreciated fully by a poet who stands even higher than he does (after all, such cases are known: Beethoven did not approve of Weber or Schubert, if I am not mistaken), and, secondly, the example from Tyutchev quoted by Fet has helped to clear up my misunderstanding altogether. The verse 'more tenderly we love and more anxiously' (нежней мы любим и суеверней) serves as splendid proof of the fact that Russian verse is capable of that alternation of two- and three-feet rhythms which so captivates me in German verse. All that remains to be desired is that such cases should not be exceptions, but, rather, that they should be standard occurrences. In my spare time I shall at some point occupy myself with re-reading Fet's poetry thoroughly, for I am sure that I will find there several examples which prove, just as well as those verses by Tyutchev, that absolute uniformity of the metric feet is by no means an essential prerequisite of beauty in a Russian poem [...]

Before moving on to Your Highness's questions about musical form, I cannot help remarking, with regard to Fet, that I really do place some of his poems up there with the very highest that there is in art. In this respect there is one which I am determined to illustrate musically at some point. Although you are quite familiar with Fet's poetry, for the sake of the pleasure of recalling these verses, I shall write them out here:

 "On a haystack during a southern night
I lay with my face towards the ground..." [7]

Am I not right, Your Highness, that this is a poem of genius?

Fet is quite correct in arguing that 'whatever doesn't add anything to the main idea, no matter how fine and harmonious it may be, ought to be discarded'. But from this it does not by any means follow that only what is brief can be said to be fully artistic, and that is why Fet's view that a perfect lyrical poem should not exceed a certain maximum [of lines] is in my opinion utterly wrong. Everything depends, firstly, on what the main idea is like, and, secondly, on the nature of the artist who is expressing it [8].

I have just got back home. I'm very satisfied with my trip. I liked Ukolovo and life with Kolya there very much. I spent four days with them in an extremely agreeable fashion. We drove over to Korennaia Pustyn and spent a day at Fet's place. This was my first ever meeting with him, and I found him to be very interesting. I noticed none of that stupidity for which he is no less famous than for his verses. I went into raptures over their garden. From Kolya's place I then set off for Kamenka... [9].

It was very pleasant to make Fet's acquaintance. Afanasy Afanasyevich's cordial reception touched me greatly. Judging from those memoirs of his published in the Russian Herald I had been expecting that his conversation would not be particularly interesting. It turned out, however, that he is an extremely agreeable person to talk to, one who is full of originality and humour. If only you knew, Your Highness, how enchanting his summer residence is! What a house, what a park, what a cosy refuge for an ageing poet! Unfortunately, as Mariya Petrovna[10] told me, our poet does not at all avail himself of the pleasure of living in such a poetic environment. He sits at home all the time, dictating his translation of Martial or verses of his own and quarrelling with the young lady whom he is dictating to, and he never steps any further out beyond the balcony. He read many of his new poems to me, whereby I was amazed at how youthful and fresh his Muse still is. We both lamented the fact that circumstances prevent Your Highness from dedicating yourself to poetic work.

  • Letter 5038 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 21 September/3 October 1893, from Moscow, in which Tchaikovsky discusses the Grand Duke's suggestion that he should set the late Apukhtin's poem Requiem to music and says some very interesting things about the Sixth Symphony before adding at the end of the letter that he had been travelling a lot recently, including a second visit to the estate of Fet, who had died the previous year:

At Vorobyevka we talked a lot about Your Highness. Mariya Petrovna has inherited from her late husband a particular affection towards you.[...] What an enchanting spot this Vorobyevka is! A true abode for a poet.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

Read Juvenals satires. What an awful translation by Fet" [11].


External Links

Notes and References

  1. Letter from Lev Tolstoy to Vasily Botkin, 9/21 July 1857. Quoted in the notes section by B. Ya. Bukhshtab in: А. А. Фет: Полное собрание стихотворений (Leningrad, 1959), p. 729–730. The choice of epigraphs to accompany The Seasons was probably made by the publisher Nikolay Bernard, rather than by the composer himself.
  2. See Letter 762 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 February 1878, from Florence.
  3. Letter from Afanasy Fet to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 8/20 October 1888. Quoted in the introductory article by B. Ya. Bukhshtab in: A. A. Fet, Полное собрание стихотворений (Leningrad, 1959), p. 43.
  4. This poem was first published posthumously in 1894 and was also included by Modest Tchaikovsky in his biography of the composer Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 443.
  5. Letter from Afanasy Fet to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 25 August/6 September 1891. Quoted in the notes section by B. Ya. Bukhshtab in: А. А. Фет: Полное собрание стихотворений (Leningrad, 1959), p. 786.
  6. In 1873, Tchaikovsky had set to music the poem by Fet he refers to here: Take Away My Heart — No. 1 of the Two Songs (1873). At the end of this letter he makes a comparison between Fet and the 'democratic' poet Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–1878), who often dealt with themes of social injustice.
  7. Tchaikovsky quotes the whole poem, which can be found in bilingual Russian / English format on a Northwestern University website.
  8. Tchaikovsky then goes on to discuss the question as to whether one could say that Beethoven's late works contained superfluous material — see the entry on Beethoven. In his letter to the composer, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich had quoted what Fet had written to him after finding out about the composer's views on the monotony of Russian verse. Fet had argued, in particular: "The fact that Russian verse is capable of an astonishing variety is demonstrated by the immortal Tyutchev in, say, the following poem of his: 'O, how in our waning years / More tenderly we love and more anxiously...' (О, как на склоне наших лет / Нежней мы любим и суеверней — the opening verses of Tyutchev's poem Last Love [Последняя любовь; 1851–54])". Fet's letter to the Grand Duke is quoted in a footnote to Tchaikovsky's letter in: Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 243.
  9. Korennaia Pustyn is an ancient monastery in Kursk province. Fet's estate Vorobyevka was located near its grounds.
  10. Mariya Petrovna (née Botkina) was Fet's wife.
  11. Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 253.